Libby Black: I Believe in You, 2016, paper, glue, and acrylic paint, 35 by 16½ by 19 inches; at Gallery 16.

Bay Area artist Libby Black’s signature sculptures re-create commodities, frequently luxury goods, using materials like paper, hot glue, and acrylic paint. She places these to-scale renderings of books, magazines, handbags, and shoes in still-life arrangements, producing what amount to compositionally pleasing indexes of acquisition and aspiration that toy with our tendency to regard material possessions as reflections of our inner selves. Black combines items from her own life with other sorts of objects, some of them her own inventions, creating hybrids that mix the real and the imaginary. As she has previously said of her work, “All of this stuff is a portrait, but there’s no person.” 

“A Light That Never Goes Out,” Black’s recent solo exhibition at Gallery 16, brought together new sculptures and a series of paintings and drawings. The combination of mediums, with 3D and 2D works arranged in vignettes, created intimate pockets within Gallery 16’s warehouse-like space. For example, a papier-mâché sculpture (I Believe in You, 2016) portraying a cheery yellow chair on which rests a bouquet-topped stack of coffee-table books on female artists (including Mary Cassatt, Annie Leibovitz, and Jessica Stockholder) was positioned in front of an acrylic painting of irises and tulips, as if the whole arrangement had been lifted from some domestic interior. Other pieces attempt to more pointedly send up the ridiculous extremes of consumerism. Spirit (2016), for instance, is a practically full-scale portrayal of a Chanel-branded skiff, complete with Goyard-patterned life jacket and box from Ladurée. 

But while excessive materialism has produced a host of problems in the world, objects can be a useful way—indeed, sometimes the only way—to access the past or reveal new facets of it. Black’s gouache-on-paper renderings of the covers of vintage lesbian pulp novels were an interesting pairing with the pieces depicting more contemporary goods. Despite the lurid tone of each cover’s copy, which promises access to heretofore-secret worlds, Black’s selection of cover art emphasizes tenderness, with images showing two women walking hand in hand down a foggy street and working out together at a gym. The narratives of such books guarantee that the sort of lives they characterize will end in misery or death. By doing away with the stories and focusing solely on the covers, Black’s works largely remove the protagonists from their original punitive framing and—like the Smiths song that her exhibition title echoes, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”—portray a love that resists being extinguished. Throughout her work, Black, with her selective eye and skillful hand, reminds us that there are important object lessons to be found amid the sea of images and stuff that floods our contemporary culture.